The Placebo Effect

Not that long ago, a study by Stanford neuro-economist Baba Shiv proved that when people are told a product is expensive, they extract more pleasure from it.

This is not a hugely surprising revelation, particularly in relation to something as subjective as wine appreciation, but more interesting is the concept at work in his experiment – something called ‘The Placebo Effect.’

According to US marketing guru Seth Godin: “A placebo is a story we tell ourselves that changes the way our brain and body work. Any time a story or ritual changes the way we encounter something, we’ve experienced the placebo effect.”

My question: Is this a bad thing? If the label, the winemaking story or the sommelier’s spiel increases our appreciation of what’s in the bottle, surely this is to be applauded?

The wine industry is built on placebos – romanticised rockstar producers, unique packaging, monolithic wineries nestled in manicured vineyards and, arguably, the pinnacle of placebos, the opinions of the ‘wine elite,’ by who’s pens a wine can live or die.

But all of these elements can be misleading.

Take, for example, natural wine. I’m not a fan. I have sat at a table with a group of wine experts who waxed lyrical about the very wines I found abominable. I have no doubt that their enjoyment was largely due to a placebo – the charming story of the natural winemaking process and those passionate souls who produced it. Never mind that the wines, although young, were terribly fatigued, heavily dominated by tertiary aromas and lacking any primary expression of variety or vineyard.

I wondered what their critique would have been if the wines had been served in a modest restaurant or without the benefit of their brand names and relatively high price points.

As I say, I have nothing against producers using placebos to their full effect when, crucially, they are in the service of the consumer. I take issue where they are used to hike prices of otherwise very ordinary wines, or in some cases wines that are downright nasty or faulty.

There are hundreds of incredible wines out there made by passionate people who genuinely want to produce something special – not as an ego exercise, not because they want to get rich (ha! yeah right), but because they love wine and want to share their product with the world.

By all means, absorb as many wine placebos as you like, they’re all part of the experience. But don’t be a chump. If a wine smells musty or vegetal, regardless of the packaging or price, trust your instinct and send that sucker back.